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When It’s Okay to Kill 80,000 Wild Goats

The Galapagos recently finished exterminating 80,000 invasive goats from the island.

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Goats beware. Image: manning999

In the Galapagos, goats are a problem. They eat the vegetation, stomp on the landscape and push out native species like tortoises. Science explains the history of the goat problem:

The Galápagos have been under siege ever since pirates and whalers began visiting the archipelago in the 1700s and leaving behind goats, pigs, and other animals as a living larder for future visits. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the goat population suddenly started booming, possibly due to El Niño–driven changes in vegetation patterns. Godfrey Merlen, a Galápagos native and director of WildAid, says he saw “two or three” goats on the upper flanks of Isabela’s Alcedo volcano in 1992. When he returned 3 years later, he saw hundreds. “It was total chaos,” Merlen says. The goats had denuded the once-lush terrain, transforming brush and cloud forests into patchy grassland.

In 2006, the Galapagos decided to do something about it. They got rid of the goats. All of them. Over the last six years they spent about $6 million, and killed almost 80,000 goats. This involved several stages, notes Last Word on Nothing:

Stage 1: Ground Hunting. Training locals – many of whom had never hunted before – they rounded up and killed about 53,782 goats.

Stage 2: Aerial Attacks. Highly trained hunters from New Zealand came in and whipped out nearly all the rest of the goats.

Stage 3: Judas Goats: Female goats doused in hormones attracted males, who were then killed on site.

It was systematic, and effective. But, was it right? Virginia Hughes wonders:

Rationally, I should have no trouble with these mass killings. I’m not a vegetarian and not particularly fond of goats. The researchers seem to have followed ethical standards, and they’re doing it all in the name of biodiversity. And yet, emotionally, hearing about these killing sprees makes me queasy.

And a lot of the commenters had things to say. MattK wonders what turns the tides against an animal:

First I think that invasive (as opposed to simply non-native) species are a serious problem much of the time – I would think (although I don’t have a source handy) that anthropogenic faunal/floral exchange has caused more extinctions than anything else we do. However I detest the demonization of invasive species. A good example is lionfish – they used to be a flagship example of the beauty and diversity of coral reefs. But since they have become invasive after being moved from the Indo-Pacific to the Atlantic coast of Americas suddenly they are “the rats of the sea”. It’s the same damned animal! I understand why conservationists/managers/scientists do this – it’s a simple way to convey a basic message: ‘species X = bad’. This sort of emotionally charged simplistic garbage has consequences such as when billions of conservation dollars are pissed away on futile eradication campaigns without any grounding in evidence (purple loosestrife springs to mind).

Another commenter, Martisha, thinks the Galapagos program was done quite well:

In terms of animal welfare. Trying to load feral wild goats onto ramps/trucks/ships for transport would be crueller. Prolonged stress, broken limbs, being crushed, going off food & water, overcrowding. Doing that with feral donkeys – increase that stress by a factor of 5.

Anyone that tries to deal fairly with wild animals would never do that to them.

But the question still remains, when is it okay to kill 80,000 animals, and when is it not? To get the answer, LWON turned to Jason G. Goldman, who blogs about animal behavior for Scientific American, who fielded questions about just when a species is “good” and when its “bad.”

If the dinosaurs had not been wiped out, perhaps mammals would not have had the chance that they did to proliferate to the extent that they have. From an anthropocentric, selfish perspective, the extinction of the dinosaurs was perhaps a good thing. By analogy, from the perspective of some species, the removal of goats from the Galápagos would be a welcome intervention and for other species it might be catastrophic. And the consequences of those sorts of decisions could potentially not be obvious for a long time.

So one of the questions we might ask is whether we can reasonably infer the short-range consequences of a species management decision, but I think we also have to be generally aware that the long-range consequences are a great big unknown. Ecosystems exist across space, but also across time. Can we do better than deciding a priori that management decisions should be made from a particular perspective?

 

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Beautiful and Bizarre Galapagos Islands

I Thought Darwin Studied Finches

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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